Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
July 18, 2016 – 4:03 PM

  • Big public employee pension fund gained just 0.61 percent last year
  • With low earnings, its unfunded liability for benefits grows
  • Maintaining 7.5 percent earnings assumption doesn’t make sense

You can smear lipstick on a pig, but that doesn’t change its innate porcinity.

Officials of the California Public Employees Retirement System, the nation’s largest pension trust fund, tried Monday to cast its very anemic investment earnings – well under 1 percent – in a positive light.

“Positive performance in a year of turbulent financial markets is an accomplishment that we are proud of,” CalPERS’ chief investment officer, Ted Eliopoulos, said in a statement as the fund’s 0.61 percent investment performance for 2015-16 was released.

That’s not as outlandish as it sounds because CalPERS is not alone. Pension funds and other big-scale investors around the world are seeing very slight, or even negative, results in an era of political and economic volatility, particularly in Europe, and interest rates near zero.

Eliopoulos said a a 3.4 percent loss in stocks, which are 52 percent of the CalPERS portfolio, dragged down its overall performance.

But the fact that CalPERS is not alone is not comforting. It means there’s almost nothing Eliopoulos can do on his own to generate higher returns – and, in fact, he sees an extended period of low trust fund earnings.

Over the last two years of earning just a fraction of the assumed 7.5 percent “discount rate,” CalPERS has fallen behind its assumptions by $30-plus billion. Thus, the entire trust fund has shrunk in relative terms because “contributions” by state and local governments and their employees fall well short of pension payouts and the earnings needed to bridge the gap haven’t been there.

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